Between 2008 and 2015, American Airlines customer service agents misclassified some passengers bumped from flights as volunteers, even though they were denied boarding against their wishes, the U.S. Department of Transportation said this week.
Many passengers don't know they are owed considerable compensation if an airline denies them boarding, and American might have been taking advantage of that. Volunteers are treated differently under federal rules. They tend to get a little less from an airline.
"American’s station agents were directed to reclassify a passenger who was denied boarding involuntarily as a volunteer, even if the passenger had not been given the opportunity to board the originally booked flight, as long as that passenger initiates a conversation, after the flight had departed, to receive the compensation that was previously offered to volunteers, the DOT said in a Sept. 16 consent order.
The DOT said this misclassification "... constitutes unfair and deceptive practice and unfair method of competition." However, American did not receive a fine. American told the DOT that relatively few passengers were affected, and the airline promised to stop making the mistake. That was enough.
American did get hit with a $20,000 fine for erring in the matter that caused the DOT to examine the airline's involuntary denied boarding procedures. In that case, 11 members of a tour group did not receive compensation after they denied boarding on a flight from Miami to London.
The group, which bought its tickets through consolidator, was pulled aside just before Flight 56 was to depart. Members were not offered any "meaningful explanation" of what happened, nor were they offered "any type of compensation," the DOT said.
What happened? It's not entirely clear. But according to the agency, American kept changing its story about how much group members were owed. This was what happened.
- At the airport, the group was offered no material compensation.
- After DOT got involved, the group was offered limited compensation. Each adult would get a check for $168 or a transportation voucher for $209.
- American followed up with DOT to say it made a mistake. This time it said it would offer a check for $496 or a voucher for $619 to each passenger.
- American then revised its estimate again. "American stated that its previous offer of $496 per passenger was mistaken because it had erroneously applied the currency exchange rate reversely when converting British Pounds to U.S. Dollars." This time, American decided each passenger should get $848.
American told DOT part of the problem was that the tickets were part of a complicated codeshare. The airline said it was also acting in good faith. But DOT was not happy.
"We consider this violation to be egregious as it affected 11 passengers, American failed to offer any DBC at all until receiving the complaint from the Enforcement Office, and only offered the correct amount of DBC after repeated inquiries from the Enforcement Office," it said.
Want the full story? Here's the DOT's decision:
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